Thursday, April 23, 2009

I receive my French citizenship

I dropped by the French consulate in Madrid today and picked up a sheaf of papers informing me that I have acquired French nationality. This included a welcome letter from President Nicolas Sarkozy "Madame, Mademoiselle, Monsieur..Vous êtes désormais citoyenne ou citoyen de notre pays," the Déclaration des droits de l'Homme (Declaration of the Rights of Man), extracts from the Constitution du 4 Octobre 1958, and a copy of La Marseillaise.

I suppose it's fashionable and convenient today to collect citizenships, but somehow I was touched. My maternal grandfather was Franco-American and grew up in France (as did my maternal grandmother). However, due to American politics immediately following the second World War, American naturalization required that he renounce his French citizenship, because of his service in the French army.

When I was a child, I first wanted to learn French because this was the language spoken by my mother's Irish-American/Colombian/French family. I was certain that only my failure to decipher the French language lay between me and exposure to many fascinating adult conversations and secrets. Every Sunday, my mother and her five siblings, their spouses and children were expected for a leisurely, alcohol-infused lunch, the kind with irreverent, salacious conversation, punctuated by multiple courses, ending with salad, cheeses, desert, coffee and brandy. My grandmother was an excellent cook--would whip up stacks of crêpes for Mardi Gras, baked her own bread, croissants and cakes, made her own jellies, candied fruits. She also cooked a lot of dishes that, to a McDonald's-loving American child, were frankly horrifying, such as frog legs, tongue, and bouillabaise.

By the time I was ten, I drank water mixed with wine at these lunches and sucked on sugar cubes dipped in coffee, afterward. While I didn't learn French until middle school, what I did learn, growing up with a large and boisterous extended family, was that you had better speak louder than everybody else or say something clever, if you wanted anybody to pay attention to you.

My mother's family owed much of their financial stability to my great-great grandfather, the child of Irish immigrant parents, who found success as the owner and operator of a string of bucket shops in New York City. Unfortunately, the only inclination his son, my great-grandfather, showed to follow in his father's footsteps was an affinity for drinking and gambling establishments. Other than that, he chiefly occupied himself spending his father's money. Just before the First World War broke out, he went on a European Tour. In Paris, he was introduced to and, soon after, married the daughter of a French count. This was my great-grandmother, whom I knew very well. She came from a family that had actively supported the monarchy (and been punished for this) during the French Revolution.

My great-grandfather eventually died an early death from alcoholism. Meanwhile, my grandfather grew up in Paris, living with his mother, his grandmother and his step-grandfather. Vacationing in Switzerland, my grandfather met and fell in love with my Colombian grandmother, who also grew up and lived in Paris. However, before they could get married, World War II had started. My grandfather was drafted into the French army, fought during the brief time the war lasted for France, then became a prisoner of war in various German camps.

My grandfather finally escaped, but the experience left him with lasting psychological scars--what would be described today as "post-traumatic stress disorder." After the war, my grandparents got married and moved to the US. My grandfather had ambivalent feelings about France, the War and the Occupation. I think he viewed the United States as a new start, a place distant from the painful experience of the war years.

From my grandfather's prisoner of war stories; to the great-grandmother, whose childhood memories included the black crêpe with which her family shrouded the windows of their home, every 14th of July to honor their Royalist forebearers put to death during the French Revolution; who, in later life, proudly sewed a line of red thread on her few formal dresses to commemorate the Légion d'Honneur she was awarded for her work in the Resistance; the very foreign-ness of my French-raised maternal grandparents to me, as a child growing up in Atlanta, Georgia in the 70s--a jumble of personal associations accompany this new, official sanction of the French part of my identity -- and, finally, the thought that, in my marriage to a Frenchman, whom I brought back to my hometown, and, our formation of a family and a company together, I may have closed the circle.

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